Zucker displayed grit and a nose for the net with the Wild last season.
It was Zucker’s only goal in the postseason and it came from a sharp angle, but it found its way past Corey Crawford and into the Chicago goal.
Fittingly, it came from a pass off of a desperate, diving Matt Cullen. The veteran center was sprawled out on the ice behind the net when he made the pass, nudging it off of Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya’s stick and eventually finding Zucker’s tape.
The young forward glided back toward the boards with outstretched arms and was surrounded by his teammates, who joyfully packed in around him knowing that one of the team’s top prospects had just cut Chicago’s series lead to 2-1.
Two games later, Minnesota was eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
As Zucker and the Wild try to build off of last year’s success and go deeper into the postseason this year, the 21-year-old forward knows he will have to do it with a new set of teammates.
Many of the players that surrounded him after the overtime winner—Tom Gilbert (77), Justin Falk (46) and Cal Clutterbuck (22)—are no longer on the team. The other winger who was on the ice, longtime Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, is now playing for the New York Islanders. Regular linemate Devin Setoguchi was traded to a new division rival, the Winnipeg Jets.
It is perhaps fitting that Cullen, who signed with the Nashville Predators, assisted on the goal because he will probably be missed the most.
“It’s great having him mentor me,” Zucker told Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune in April of last year. “He’s been around the block. He knows the game and all the details of it.”
Mike Yeo echoed that sentiment, telling Russo that all of his young stars have benefitted from veteran leadership on the team in some way. “Look at a guy like Zuck, and you’ve got a guy like Cully helping him along. [Jonas] Brodin with Suts [Ryan Suter] and Charlie [Coyle] with Mikko Koivu.”
Well, Brodin still has Suter, and Coyle still has Koivu, but Zucker no longer has Cullen.
The changing of the guard means that young players like Zucker are going to have to play an even bigger role on this year’s team. Zucker is not a star like Zach Parise, Ryan Suter or Mikko Koivu, nor is he even the team’s most-hyped young player. Jonas Brodin and Charlie Coyle played like veterans last year, and Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter are thought to have a higher ceiling.
Unlike Brodin, Coyle, Granlund and Niederreiter, Zucker was not a first-round pick. He was chosen in the second round (No. 59 overall) of the 2010 draft. He played his college hockey at the University of Denver, the school closest to his hometown of Las Vegas, after playing high school hockey in Michigan and a stint on the U.S. national development team.
Zucker has the potential to be of the Parise mold, however: a smaller, high-energy player that hounds the puck on the forecheck and can finish around the net. He also may find a fit as a third-line grinder that has a scoring touch. It’s also worth looking at what he’ll do this upcoming season now that the roster has been reconfigured.
Regardless how good he ends up being, Zucker is a player worth watching in 2013-14. He is a legitimate two-way player that has both an edge to him and a scoring touch.
Even though he is unlikely to spend a lot of time on Parise’s line, Zucker can benefit from wearing the same sweater as No. 11. Both players are technically undersized—Parise is 5’11", 195 pounds and Zucker is 5’11”, 185 pounds—but play a high-motor, puck-hounding style of hockey that involves pestering opponents on the forecheck and forcing them to turn over the puck.
Essentially, both players use their defense to create offense.
While Parise may be a first-line player with a hefty price tag, he still plays like a guy with something to prove. He’s as aggressive in the defensive zone as he is in front of his own net. In fact, most of his goals are not dazzling—they usually involve poking at rebounds or getting possession in the dirty areas.
When he does score a pretty goal, it is usually because Koivu set him up.
Similarly, Zucker does not have the stick handling ability of a guy like Granlund, but he makes up for it by playing along the boards and removing bodies from the puck. Like Parise, he plays a lot bigger than his size and has some grit to his game.
All you really need to know about Zucker is that he trains with MMA fighters in the offseason and proved last year that he’s not afraid to engage the NHL’s heavyweights.
At his best, Zucker might turn out to be a first-line player, even if he’s mostly there for his defense. He’s capable of scoring goals, and his physical, turnover-inducing style of play makes him a fit on a Wild club that has always prided itself on being hard to play against.
A Third-Line Grinder
Zucker is likely to spend the beginning of his career on the third or fourth line, however, because a) there are a lot of talented young forwards on the roster, and b) it would help his development to focus on defense first and add the scoring component later on.
He can lay down a pretty mean check if he gets his opponent lined up, is rarely out of position and adds a little scoring depth on the third line. Unlike Coyle, Granlund and Niederreiter, he’s not going to be asked to produce right away or, in Granny and Nino’s case, be sent down to the AHL to get more playing time.
Zucker will probably be best served getting decent playing time on the third line where he can learn from some veteran players and improve defensively. He will be presented with an opportunity to score but will not be expected to carry too much weight offensively.
Even if he never becomes a prolific scorer in the NHL, he still has value in becoming a core member that can be signed for a reasonable price as a reliable depth player.
What to Expect This Year
The top line is pretty much set with Koivu centering Parise and Jason Pominville. Coyle and Granlund are going to be fighting for the No. 2 center spot, and if Granlund gets it, Coyle is likely to end up on his wing. Niederreiter was supposed to make Setoguchi expendable, so he will be expected to play second-line minutes.
If any of those young guys falter, Dany Heatley will likely get a spot on the second line. Otherwise, he’ll probably provide size and some scoring on the third line.
That means that Zucker’s natural spot would be with Heatley and Kyle Brodziak, a veteran pivot, on the third line. It’s a good spot for him to grow, allowing him to get regular minutes while not having to face unrealistic expectations next year.
He may have a more defensive role this season, but keep an eye on Zucker this year. He might get a little lost in the mix with all the young talent on the team, but expect him to do big things as he develops as a forward.
Like, you know, scoring an overtime goal in the playoffs.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.